Adventist History

Elephants in the Room: The Regional Conference Debate, pt. 2

February 24, 2014

It’s been said that unless we learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.  Last week, I shared some experiences of missionaries in the South and the initial struggles they faced in trying to reach out to the southern Black population.  They encountered unequaled racism in an area that they called “a closed field, where violent men defended prejudices with guns and whips.”1

According to Kessia Bennett, who dedicated her master’s thesis to the study on the resistance and accommodation that Southern Adventist missionaries had in reaching out to Blacks during this time (again, this series is based on that thesis; a link to it can be found here), this probably explains why, in part, the church was so late to begin laboring in that region.  It certainly helps explain the reactions of mild astonishment when Northern missionaries encountered Southern racial customs at the time.

We also saw how the original two separate entities in the South (the Southern Union Conference and the Southeastern Union Conference) were created with the intention of “better reaching the needs” of Black people. However, Bennett writes that the missionaries who sought to evangelize the area did not believe this rationale as part of their missionary endeavors.  They believed that the barrier to true racial harmony was not integration, but prejudice, which explains why they viewed the segregation of conferences as a concession to prejudice. 2

If you noticed the dates in the last blog though, you will see a 40 year gap between the violent acts that Mr. Rogers had to endure (not the Mr. Rogers you might be thinking of, this is the non-PBS missionary) to the formal establishment of regional conferences in the 1940s.  So what happened during this time?  This leads me to the point of this week’s look at the debate: it would be nice to say that the church established regional conferences as a concession to only the “external” societal pressure that they faced in trying to reach out.  However, historically, that is sadly not true.

Racism, particularly in the form of segregation, infiltrated the policy and unconscious culture within the Seventh-day Adventist church in America.  This racism was manifested in hiring discrimination, underrepresentation in leadership, unfair financial practices, and persistent segregation of policies.3

This is why this situation has become a hot button issue and an “elephant” within our church: because we have to sit down, look at ourselves in the mirror and admit, “Yes, we as a church treated our fellow believers no better than the rest of society at the time… the only difference was that we were better at keeping our racism under wraps through the guise of piety” (and it’s hard to admit that kind of glaring hypocrisy).

This lack of knowledge in many ways is what keeps this issue from being dealt with in the honest way that is needs to be.  By the 1940’s the formation of regional conferences was the climax of long dissatisfaction within the Black community about the church’s treatment of their community and mission; it was an easy and convenient way to provide a “separate but equal” administrative structure where Black Adventists leaders could advance professionally while having their own structure and White Adventist could have their own.

I know that is a pretty bold statement to make.  However, I am comfortable saying that because there is plenty of historical evidence to support it.  Below are some examples of leadership discrimination manifested when the church appointed White leadership over the Black work during the early part of the 20th century, even though the church had already produced some very capable Black leaders by then:4

  • Although the equivalent departments for Germans and Scandinavians were led by people of the targeted ethnicity, for nine years (1909 through 1918) the North American Negro Department was led by a White man.
  • The editor of Message, the denomination’s magazine for Black leadership, had a White man as its editor for 13 years from 1932 through 1945.
  • Until 1932 Oakwood’s top administration (the Historically Black Adventist university) was White.

These influential and important leadership positions in the Black work were held by Whites, revealing that the denomination either did not trust that Blacks could lead the work, or that they felt they should lead it instead.  You may think “Hey, how can you know what they thought at the time?”  You are right, I can’t know for sure, but history shows that hiring discrimination was not limited to the key leadership positions.  Doctors, nurses, and office secretaries were all underrepresented on the church payroll, thus revealing a disturbing trend at all levels of the administrative structure.  Being hired did not guarantee equal treatment either, though.  W. H. Green was the first Black man to lead the Negro Department at the GC.  Here are his words regarding his treatment on the job:

“It was very uncomfortable from the very first… I could not eat in the General Conference cafeteria with everyone else.  Some whites would not even greet you when they saw you in the morning.  When they saw you coming, they would look at you, look by you – there would be no greeting at all.  This was largely on the part of the womenfolk, but once in a while the men would do it too.” 5

One of the most visible features of racial inequality in the North American Church was the segregation of Adventist facilities.  Black students were denied entrance to the Adventist schools on the basis of their race; Black Adventist patients were even denied care at Adventist hospitals.6  By the 1940s, enough dissatisfaction with the status quo had occurred among the Black community that the church was forced to take action.

 “Black ministers felt that the only way to improve the work among Negroes of the country was to organize colored conferences, whereby the colored people may handle their own money, employ their own workers and so develop administrative ability in all cultural lines of work … to organize Negro conferences that would function in exactly the same relation to the General Conference as white conferences.” 7

Bennet notes that “Some thought that regional conferences would advance the mission to Black America (which indeed they did), but there were other Black Adventists who opposed it.  It ended up being something like a lukewarm compromise — better than being ignored and kept from leadership positions, but not the full recognition and integration that had been hoped for.”8  Regional conferences were voted in the Spring Council of 1944, long after they had been proposed.

This was not full integration and empowerment, but but it did mean much more self-determination for Black administration while remaining in the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church.  Regional conferences are not segregationists in the sense of the Jim Crow laws of the past era; they are not attempts to keep Whites and Blacks socially separated because of racial superiority or inferiority.  The formation of regional conferences as a parallel structure within the church did, however, testify to the failure of North American Adventism to offer full legitimacy to its Black American members.9

Two non-Adventist historians looking at the Adventist church, Bull and Lockhart, claim that the establishment of regional conferences was adopted only to appease the Whites, not for the sake of Black people.  In what some have called a stinging criticism, they wrote about the church during the 1940s, “[Adventism] was still a White movement, with a mission to White America, and Blacks were not allowed to jeopardize the evangelistic objective of the denomination.”10

One bright spot in this dark time of our history was that there were key leaders within the church who knew that there was inequality within the Adventist church and its facilities, and tried to take action to stem the tide.  In 1950, the president of the world church, W. H. Branson, sent a letter to denominational leadership (including every Union president and every local conference president) urging integration.  He pointed that the progress of the rest of the world was passing by the church in this area.  He said, “Perhaps no religious group in United States or the world claims so fully that it is intentional in its attitudes and services as do the Seventh-day Adventists and yet, in this manner of Negro segregation, we are trailing behind the procession.”

Sadly, still no change took place.  Twelve years later, at the 1962 General Conference session in San Francisco, it took physical demonstrations, written demands, and front-page news stories for the announcement to come that indeed the church would desegregate.11

I believe this post covers much of what led to the establishment of regional conferences.  Granted, this is not intended to be an exhaustive/comprehensive study; there are other people who have done a better job at looking at the factors from all sides than I have.

I can however, give you the summary of 15 key chronological events that directly or indirectly served as catalysts for the establishment of Regional conferences:

Read this list carefully and look over the events that are mentioned. By doing so, you will be better informed on the issues at hand.

In this post I am only sharing interesting points that I have found on this study.  However, having established all of this groundwork, the next question that I hope to address next week is a personal/practical note on this matter.  Why is this subject so important to me, and what can really be done about solving this issue?  Should anything even be done, or should we just ride this thing out until Jesus comes and hope that He will clean up the mess we got ourselves in? (You may sense what my feelings are.)  Thanks for reading and see you all next week!

Racism-MLK-Jr

  1. Arthur Spalding, first volume of a history of Seventh-day Adventist covering the years 1845 through 1900.  captain of the host, page 488.
  2. Kessia Reyne Bennett, Resistance and Accommodation to Racism Among Early Seventh-day Adventist Missionaries in the American South, (Andrews University Press, Berrien Springs, MI), p. 36.
  3. ibid, 63.
  4. Ibid, 65
  5. Malcom Bull and Kevin Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream (Indiana University Press, 1987), pg 201.
  6. Bennet. Pg. 65-66

7.  Justiss, Jacob. Angels of Ebony (Justiss, 1975)

8.  Bennett, Kessia. Personal interview. 19 Feb. 2014.

  1. Roy Branson, “Adventism’s Rainbow Coalition,” In Make Us One, edited by Delbert W. Baker. (Pacific Press) pg.77-80
  2. Bennett. Pg 68.
  3. Bull and Lockhart (1989), pg 197.

 

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